Impact in America

Beginning in the 1970’s, sneakers began to form a more prominent role in the ordinary American’s every day life. Advances in human physiological understanding was beginning to show that the human body’s health was not simply determinant on the way the cards were dealt when you were born, but rather that one’s health could be somewhat controlled or improved with exercise and diet. The American government realized this and began to shift the burden of maintaining ones health from the failing health care system to the individual themselves. Following these scientific studies, a fitness craze swept the nation. The most popular form of fitness that emerged from this new “fitness movement” was jogging, something we don’t consider today to be a modern invention but was almost non-existent before the 1960’s and 1970’s.[1]

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However, jogging and other forms of exercise were uncomfortable and probably counter-intuitive while wearing leather-bound hard soles. Sneakers however, were perfect for the job. The movement swept the nation and before long high schools were adding required physical education periods, and athletic participation and fandom grew rapidly. One great indicator of this dramatic increase is the participation in the New York Marathon, which in 1972 had only about three hundred participants. By 1979, over eleven thousand runners and joggers were competing in the marathon.[2] Until fitness became a part of the everyday American lifestyle, there was little need for a pair of sneakers, unless you were a paid athlete. This fitness movement could never have happened in America without the development of the sneaker, as exercise in the footwear of old would have done more harm than good to the body.

Sneakers, in particular the timeless Converse All-Stars, became popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s among America’s youth. Teenage role models like George Harrison of the Beatles and the Sex Pistols began to sport the dated, but stylish shoe. This period marked the end of Converse’s industry dominance, as the shoe soon became a sign of teenage angst and the counter culture movement that emerged in the 1960’s and 1970’s.[3]

Endorsements were one of the major factors that influenced the growth of the athletic shoe industry in America. As spectator sports gained popularity throughout the first half of the 20th century, shoe companies began to market their shoes through sports idols, most notably Chuck Taylor and his endorsement of the Converse All-Stars, which became synonymous with Taylor himself. Other companies like Puma and Adidas began to pay Olympic athletes just to wear their shoes. These endorsement deals were extremely popular for athletes at the time, as paychecks were few and far between, even for the most accomplished athlete. Jesse Owens, champion of the Berlin Olympics and winner of four gold medals would later in life be reduced to racing horses for money. In an interview with Larry Shwartz in 1971 Owens lamented that “… I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.” The endorsements began spreading to athletes in other sports like NFL Quarterback Joe Namath, who teamed up with Puma and could be seen flashing his cleats after winning Super Bowl III. These endorsement’s helped create buzz for companies, and whichever could sign the most high profile athletes would be seen as the best brand. Nike took full advantage of this idea by signing Michael Jordan for 2.5 million dollars in 1985, signaling the birth of the Air Jordan, the second most popular basketball shoe of all time, behind the Chuck Taylor’s of course.[4] At the time this contract was the largest for any athlete for just agreeing to endorse a product, but the plan paid off dividends for Nike as the Air Jordans grossed over 130 million dollars in it’s first year.[5] These endorsements continue to be an extremely important part of the sales pitch for athletic shoe companies. For example, in 2005 Nike’s revenues topped just over 3.4 billion dollars, equal to about half of all the other companies combined (Adidas, Reebok, New Balance, etc…). Even more remarkable is that Nike’s endorsement deals topped 1.4 billion dollars in 2005 as well, nearly half of the entire corporation’s revenue.[6] Today, the footwear industry has grown into an 11 billion dollar a year business, with new shoe technology coming out every day, trying to take the next step to the sneakers of tomorrow.[7]

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[1] Muriel Gillick, “Health Promotion, Jogging, and Pursuit of a Moral Life.” Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law 9 (1984): 369-387.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Betsy Kroll, “Star Power,” Time, June 2008, 30-31.

[4] David L. Andrews, Michael Jordan, Inc., (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2001), 123.

[5] Ibid.

[6] CNN Money, “Nike endorsement deals up nearly $350M to $1.4B,” (August 18, 2003). <>

[7] Ibid.

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